The initial public offering of Baidu (BIDU), the Chinese Internet search company, shattered records on Aug. 4. It was the most successful Nasdaq IPO in five years, rising from $27 to $154. While the stock price has settled back at $91, the company has recast the perception of the Chinese Internet market. Valuations of Internet companies, and search companies in particular, are on the rise.
Now, big players from the U.S. are pouring into the Chinese market. Google (GOOG) has a stake in Baidu. Yahoo! (YHOO) is said to be in talks with e-commerce site Alibaba, eBay (EBAY) has acquired Eachnet, and MSN has its own operations in China (see BW Online, 8/11/05, "There's More Where Baidu Came From").
David Liu, managing director of China tech banking at Jefferies & Co., expects valuations to keep rising in the wake of the Baidu IPO. He spoke about the Chinese tech market with BusinessWeek Online Senior Writer Steve Rosenbush. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Q: How would you characterize Baidu's valuation?
A: By any conventional standards, the valuation looks very high. Its valuation is higher than Yahoo, Google, or eBay. To justify this valuation, Baidu needs to grow faster than Google.
Q: Why did Baidu's value reach its current level?
A: The valuation of Baidu was driven by a "perfect storm" of investment conditions. There haven't been that many IPOs, and the market is starved for good growth ideas.
Lots of investors have been kicking themselves because they didn't buy Google when it was in the 80s. It's 300 now. We're also seeing rapid growth of the China market. It's a very large opportunity. It's the second largest Internet market in the world, and over the next two years, pundits believe, it will become the largest Internet market in the world.
The valuation of Baidu was also driven by the rapid growth of online advertising and revenues related to search. And the nice thing about Baidu is we've seen this movie before -- in the U.S. Everyone believes the same movie is going to play out in China and that Baidu will do as well as Google.
Q: But is the current valuation justified?
A: The company hasn't disclosed forward-looking revenue numbers. The analysts who worked on the deal are in a quiet period, and we won't see anything from them until 40 days after the IPO, or early September. Those reports will show their view on Baidu's projections. Once the numbers come out, we can figure out whether the company's projected growth justifies its current valuation.
Q: How will the Baidu valuation alter the outlook for M&A and IPOs in China?
A: There's no doubt the Baidu IPO will affect companies that are in a related space, like Alibaba. Any Chinese search company today is going to look at the Baidu situation and start thinking more about launching an IPO than pursuing an M&A.
Baidu will have an effect on the broader market, too. There are only 30 China-based tech companies on the Nasdaq. That's a very small sample, so every single deal has a meaningful impact on expectations. If you're a China-based tech company looking to sell or go public, an event of this magnitude heavily skews that sample and what you think the value of your company is. In my opinion, the Baidu IPO pushes valuations beyond the point where many M&A deals can get done.
Baidu clearly affects companies with one degree of separation -- those that are rivals of Baidu. And it affects the valuation of Internet companies, or companies with two degrees of separation. They will argue that they make their money by monetizing traffic, just like Baidu.
Tech companies, which have three degrees of separation, will argue that they're tech market leaders, just like Baidu and deserve a similar valuation. And companies with a fourth degree of separation, which operate beyond the tech market, will argue that they deserve a valuation comparable to Baidu, too. But I think these arguments lose credibility unless the company is a search company or an Internet company.
Q: Can you be more specific about how Baidu will change the outlook for M&A and IPOs in China?
A: Baidu will have the biggest impact on search companies like Sina and Zhongsou, which compete directly with Baidu. It also may have an effect on companies like Alibaba, the b2b site. While Alibaba may be in talks with Yahoo, it's unlikely to sell out entirely. It may sell a piece to Yahoo, then go public, just as job site eLong sold a piece to Barry Diller's IAC/Interactive before it went public. [eLong was acquired by Interactive and is now part of spinoff Expedia.]
We'll see more two track deals like this. M&A is difficult in any market growing this fast because the seller thinks it's going to keep growing like crazy, and the buyer thinks expectations are too high.
Other companies on the cusp of M&A or IPO include China HR, the job site. Rival job site 51job (JOBS) went public last year. It was the second-best performing IPO on the Nasdaq. Another job site, Zhaopim, may also be close to IPO or deal. The same is true for Soufum, the real estate site. But once you get beyond search and Internet sectors, the influence of the Baidu IPO really starts to wane.
Q: Is there a danger that an M&A/IPO bubble is forming in the China market?
A: Valuations are based on a company's future growth. If these companies perform well, the valuations will be justified. If they don't, valuations will come down. That's why quarterly performance is so important. These kinds of businesses are so new in China.
But there will be a new Google, a new Yahoo, and a new Microsoft that comes out of China. And these market leaders will justify their valuations. But these companies are relatively small, and it's hard to pick which ones will be winners. That's why investors get paid so much money. It's particularly hard to pick winners in tech, which tends to be a winner take all market.
Q: Will Baidu be a winner?
A: It has the lead right now, but someone else could come along. Google wasn't the first search company in the U.S., or even the second or the third. And most of those early leaders aren't around today.